POPS-Hopping in Midtown Manhattan

POPS-Hopping in Midtown Manhattan

By: Alexander Alvarado, Jose Sabal, and Stacy Wang

Walking on the busy streets of Manhattan, you may come across an unusual scene of New York pedestrians leisurely lounging around, perhaps reading or having coffee. It can sometimes be accompanied by an atypical amount of greenery and copious seating arrangements. These scenes usually take place in small nooks and crannies in the city and may seem like an odd, but welcoming contrast to the otherwise gray and utilitarian streets of New York.  The nooks and crannies described are likely to be public parks and squares, but it is also just as likely for these spaces to be private property. These are quite simply referred to as privately owned public spaces (also known as POPS).

An entire afternoon was devoted to trekking across the city to look for and then examine different privately owned public spaces (also known as POPS) in the area. POPS are spaces maintained and owned by a private entity for the general public to use. In exchange for maintaining the public space, the entity is granted rights by the city to build additional floor area beyond standard zoning capacity for their own private use. POPS are scattered all throughout New York City, but are generally more concentrated in the midtown and upper east sections of Manhattan.

POPS became a popular means for private entities to extend their private floor spaces after the establishment of the 1961 Zoning Resolution in which the government encouraged POPS development. According to the nyc.gov/pops website, the 1961 Zoning Resolution revised the earlier 1916 Zoning Resolution in terms of establishing new regulations based on the city’s new needs such as the widespread use of automobiles that would help ensure a safe and comfortable living space for the people. POPS was an affordable way to help the government provide the public with such an environment. To ensure that private entities do not misuse or neglect these spaces, the city enacted many regulations pertaining to maintaining and designing POPS. However, there has been some controversy in regards to whether or not the city actually implements these regulations.

Harvard professor, and author of Privately Owned Public Spaces (2000), Jerold S. Kayden, has pointed out that the quality and maintenance of POPS throughout the city varied. As a result, in 2007, the city revised the original POPS implemented new design standards in an effort to attract more people to these spaces and to better the quality of POPS. Further changes to the designs were made in 2009 honing in on and fine-tuning specific parts of the design requirements.

The 1961 Zoning Resolution saw the conception of several different types of POPS throughout New York City. These include plazas, arcades, urban plazas, residential plazas, sidewalk widenings, open air concourses, covered pedestrian spaces, through block arcades and sunken plazas according to the nyc.gov/pops website but, the most popular remains the outdoor plaza. All of these spaces have their own requirements and standards. However, these requirements all contribute towards the overall design for an open, welcoming, and safe space for the public’s use. There are many requirements and design standards that each POPS needs to adhere to. These requirements can include the presence of signs, trash receptacles, greenery, seating accommodations, lighting, visibility, and accessibility. During our visit to each POPS, we kept these requirements in mind.

We concentrated mostly on the Midtown area of Manhattan between Fifty-fifth Street and Fifty-nine Street. There is an abundance of POPS in the city; particularly in this neighborhood. We examined a total of nine POPS including the well known Trump Tower and Sony Plaza. We noted the design of the space while heavily referencing the official nyc.gov and apops.mas.org websites for POPS locations and their design requirements. We also naturally took note of the aesthetics, atmosphere, and surroundings of the space as well. It was also important for us to remember that the traffic flow of many outdoor plazas was affected by the weather, which on that particular day was windy and rather unpleasantly cold. We took particular care in determining whether the owner of the POPS actually made an attempt to make it obvious to the general public that the area was a public space. We were concerned about whether or not the general public knew about the existence of these places and that they had access to them.

From what we have seen and heard so far we have concluded, as Professor Jerold Kayden had, that the quality and conditions of POPS throughout the city vary from one another. For example, while some places went through many pains to advertise the public nature of their space, others completely lacked any signage of the sorts. The only way we were able to determine some spaces to be POPS was by checking a POPS list available on the nyc.gov website/pops. We have compiled and written an account of our own experiences at nine different POPS in Midtown Manhattan in hopes of encouraging others to visit and utilize, if not simply become more aware of the existence of, such places.

550 Madison Avenue: Sony Plaza

The first of our stops was the Sony Plaza Atrium. Walking towards the building, we were pleased to come across some nice banners that publicized the nature of the area we were about to enter. In big purple letters we saw the words “Public Space” written on vertical banners attached to the wall of the building. Immediately, we took note of the effective and benign way these banners were utilized to attract passersby to the area; there was no indication that this identity of public space was trying to be hidden from, well, the public.

Located in one of the busiest regions of the city, on the ground floor of 550 Madison Avenue, Sony Plaza Atrium is quite inviting. As you walk in, you immediately get a glimpse of the tables and movable chairs that occupy much of the space and seem to be enjoyed by most of the visitor population. Next to be noticed are the various stores and food services that line the arcade, which evoke a sort of shopping mall-like, commercial atmosphere. Once we were inside, we had almost no problem in locating some seats to accommodate the three of us. Observing our surroundings, we noticed a family of tourists sitting down for a quick meal, businessmen and women reading paperwork and chatting, and even a man attempting to nap inconspicuously while wearing his sunglasses.

Our attentionquickly fell upon a tall man dressed in a suit whose demeanor was reminiscent of a hired bodyguard. Thinking that we would be able to glean some very useful firsthand information from this obvious employee, we chose to approach him first. We waited until he stopped tending to the tables, and when he seemed to have a free moment we introduced ourselves. Immediately the man seemed to be suspicious of what we were doing; he refused to speak to us about our report and when we asked him if we could go around and interview some of the other people sitting at the tables he said we needed a permit (notwithstanding our explanation of this being an undergraduate college project). Instantly, our investigation of the Sony Plaza Atrium was restricted in a very fundamental way.

Furthermore, as former Chairman of the City Planning Commission Joseph B. Rose also noted, Sony does more than its share to ensure that people are aware that it owns the space: the Sony logo is plastered almost anywhere you look (including on almost all of the exterior banners). Rose observed, “It feels a lot like a Sony lobby… And that’s not something that I’d like to see replicated around the city in other spaces.” We might do well to ask ourselves if the heightened alertness displayed by the security guard ties in to this relatively corporatized environment. But all in all, other than that barrier to freely conduct interviews, we found the spot to be relatively inviting to anyone needing a spot to sit down and have lunch or enjoy a book to read.

590 Madison Avenue – Edward J. Minskoff Equities Inc’s (Formerly IBM’s) Sculpture Park

Our next stop was conveniently located across Sony Plaza along Fifty-Sixth Street at 590 Madison Avenue. Formerly owned by IBM, the glass-enclosed Sculpture Park was a privately owned public space that received much media attention in 1994 when the building it was in changed hands from IBM to Edward J. Minskoff Equities Inc. The new owners appealed to the City for permission to modify the public space. Despite protests and criticism by the general public, the company removed some of the original bamboo plants and seating to provide room for artisticsculptural pieces, making the space into what people see today (tclf.org).

Immediately before entering the building, we noticed a well-placed plaque near the revolving doors, which asserted in large, bold letters that this building was a “PUBLIC SPACE” open from 8am to 10pm. The interior of Sculpture Park was warm and inviting. Its tall glass ceilings and walls permitted ample amounts of sunlight to stream into the atrium and, although it was indoors, this combined with the bamboo plants placed throughout the floor conveyed a very outdoorsy and relaxed atmosphere. The atrium was well populated with tourists, businessmen, and residents alike, bustling with a sort of hushed activity. Although there were abundant seating arrangements in the area, the place was relatively full so it was a little difficult to find a table for three. Large, metallic contemporary sculptures dotted the seating area and a busy Italian restaurant stood in one corner of the atrium.

Embedded on a wall near the entrance, a plaque listed activities prohibited on the atrium floor. Among this list of prohibited activities included sleeping, sitting on the floor, and exhibiting any disorderly conduct. The security guards walking the floor were more than willing to answer any questions we had regarding the public space. When asked about the list of prohibited activities listed on the plaque, one of the security guards mentioned that there were other rules that were not listed. These unlisted rules included obtaining permission from the building owner in order to congregate in large groups to perform or protest on the atrium floor.

Despite these rules, we found Sculpture Park to be quite peaceful. The space seemed like a good place to unwind and enjoy sunlight and plant life without actually having to be outdoors. 

725 Fifth Avenue – Trump Tower

Entering the indoor POPS in Trump Tower via the glass doors connecting it to Sculpture Park, we immediately noticed a change in ambience. This space was four floors of brass, marble, stone, and reflective surfaces. While it was a public space, it felt very commercialized with its retail stores including a restaurant on the first floor and a Starbucks on the second floor. The space was well used and very busy with tourists and visitors.

While inside we did not find a sign that declared the area a public space, we did find large, reflective signposts on each of the three floors that touted the Trump Tower icon along with the floor level and floor amenities. A sign declaring the space “Open to the Public” was large and clearly visible on the other entrance of the building that was on Fifth Avenue. Besides the seating arrangements in the restaurant and around Starbucks, there was additional seating elsewhere on each floor, mostly along the edge of the walkways. This seating arrangement conveyed a sort of shopping mall ambience to us as the space seemed to force us to concentrate more on the retailers and shopping rather than the availability of seats for us to rest in. There was also an impressive water feature that extends to all four floors of the space. Riding up the shiny escalators to the top floor, we had a spectacular, almost vertigo-inducing view of all the floors and activities going on below us.

On both the third and fourth floors, we discovered a glass door labeled in large, green letters, “Public Garden” that led us to an outdoor balcony. The balcony was surprisingly subdued compared to the interior of the building. The railings were made from simple stacked bricks lined with greenery and ample seating space. There was also a nice view of the city streets below and very prominent signs prohibiting smoking on the balconies as well. On the fourth floor, the public garden was closed due to construction work, but its features were visible through its glass entranceway and we could see that it was very similar to the garden on the third floor. These public gardens offered us a welcoming reprieve from the glamorous, but somewhat overwhelming atmosphere of the space inside Trump Tower.

712 Fifth Avenue

Walking along Fifty-sixth Street towards Sixth Avenue, we would have missed this supposed privately owned public space entirely if we had not been intentionally looking for it. We saw no features or signs which would indicate that this fifty-two story-tall building owned by Paramount Group Inc., which towered over the other buildings on this block, contained space for public use. We walked into the lobby of the building and asked the security guards at the front desk about the existence of a public space within the vicinity of the building. Our question was received with perplexed looks by the guards. Their response was, “this is a private lobby.”

According to the nyc.gov website, there is indeed an approved permanent passageway at the address, 712 Fifth Avenue, but its construction has currently been put on hiatus. There is also a building entrance recess area that is supposedly marginal or lacking in design and amenities, but we did not see this one either and its existence seems to be unknown even to the employees in the building.

40 West 57th Street

The next spot we visited was the small walkway found at 40 West 57th street. As we stepped into the walkway, we noticed that the area housed some large pieces of artwork. As we navigated the open block arcade, which is listed as a plaza on nyc.gov, we could not help but notice the unique design of the place. It definitely had a sleek, modern feel to it, but the sculptures and statues lined against the wall gave it a strangely archaic and slightly unsettling tone as if it was a posh contemporary art museum. Around at some of the stores that lined the arcade, we noticed some further intriguing artwork in one of the rooms that fed our curiosity as we walked by. It was a replica of a phone booth, but slanted at an almost impossible angle. From a completely aesthetic point of view, the short walkway was indeed somewhat entertaining. We never figured out what the purpose of the phone booth was. After all, you would never be able to make a phone call from it.

One aspect to be considered about this space is utility. How was the place designed to function? Does it serve a useful purpose to the public? Instinctively, one of the first things we did was look for some benches to sit down on, but there were none to be found. As we stood to observe the arcade and take note of how it was being used by the public, we had to admit that we were a little put off by the fact that we had nowhere to comfortably situate ourselves so that our legs could rest. The best we could do was lean against one of the wall sections as many people did. Strangely, there were cigarette disposal posts and trash receptacles placed in corners of the walkway. We saw many people leaning against the wall, smoking, and then conveniently disposing the cigarette heads in the posts. Adding seating areas would have definitely improved the quality of the space.

Despite the lack of seating, the walkway seemed to be functioning well. There was a nice, steady pedestrian flow even though it was not a particularly busy time of the day. It was not very crowded; if anyone desired, he or she could have sprinted through the arcade at any moment. However, that was just it. This area of “public space” never served much more of a purpose than a simple cut-through from West 57th to West 56th Street. It is a quick shortcut with a line of stores on each wall, interrupted only by strange artwork; it is shelter from the weather on a bad day (and even then you would have to remain standing). And when you think about it, the spots those sculptures took up would have been perfect locations for some nice sturdy benches. You almost cannot help but wonder what would have happened if the public had voted on the design.

 118 West 57th Street

Le Parker Meridien Hotel was our next stop. To give you an impression of the sort of environment we stepped into, we have to admit that upon entering we thought we had walked into the wrong place. The atmosphere we found ourselves in was quite distinct from everything we thought we knew about public space; the room we were observing resembled a fancy bar or a restaurant more than anything else. Many things about the room gave the impression of luxury, high class, and, as a result, exclusivity. Most notable among these were the plush chairs, ornate coffee tables, and embellished walls and ceiling.

In addition, there were no signs outside to denote the area as a public space—which means that unless you found out the specific location from an outside source (as we did) or you simply have a knack for arbitrarily walking into buildings, you would never know that 118 West 57th street provides public amenities. And, as stated before, once we were inside it was still hard to discern whether we were supposed to be there or not. Once again, one of the first things we did was look for a place to sit. When we spotted some empty seats, we were a little hesitant to make ourselves comfortable, as we could not figure out if they were reserved for patrons only. When we were finally accustomed to this vastly distinct public space, we were more able to appreciate the impressive atmosphere. To say the least, the space is attractive (once you are inside) and comfortable.

As its construction began in 1979, Le Parker Meridien made use of the building provisions outlined in the popular zoning code in exchange for the creation of public space. However, it seems it has had a history of doing whatever possible to maintain a sort of members-only atmosphere and ensure that most of the surrounding public remains ill-informed about the nature of the space. Such was the case with Brian Nesin, founder of the public space awareness group Friends of POPS, who had the experience of being told he could not stay when he brought a bagged lunch to eat at a table. Only upon doing an investigation and later returning—when he then explained to security that the area is a POPS and that he had every right to be there without buying anything—did the administration let him eat his lunch (not before bringing him a plate to obscure the fact that he was not a paying customer). Interestingly, Jerold Kayden commented, “It becomes difficult for even the public space expert to know there is a public space here.”

1350 Sixth Avenue

We arrived at the intersection between Sixth Avenue and Fifty-Seventh Street shortly afterwards. After a brief walk along Sixth Avenue towards downtown Manhattan we came across the famous “LOVE” sculpture erected in 1971 by pop artist Robert Indiana at 1350 Sixth Avenue in front of a TD Bank. However, if not for the iconic sculpture, we would not have known otherwise that this corner of the block was a designated outdoor POPS. There was a general lack of signage and seating in the area, save for perhaps the raised stone pedestal the “LOVE” sculpture rested on. Certainly, the area was being utilized, mostly by tourists taking pictures in front of the sculpture and a food vendor that stood on the street nearby, but this space did not fully fulfill the role of a public plaza. The nyc.gov website confirms that this area is a public plaza, albeit a marginal one which does not have all the necessary designs and amenities that would help make the area a successful POPS.

1370 Sixth Avenue

Once again, on the busy commercial streets of Sixth Avenue, we came across a non-existent privately owned public space. A mere block away from the marginal POPS on 1350 Sixth Avenue, there was, again, no indication of a POPS anywhere in the vicinity. Unexpectedly, we completely missed this supposed POPS the first time around and examined the previously mentioned POPS first. We could only see a Duane Reade, a Chase bank, and an F train subway station in place of where there was supposed to be an outdoor open plaza with seating arrangements on the corner of the block (apops.mas.org). According to the nyc.gov website, this plaza was also put on hiatus. However, the website does not indicate how long the construction of this plaza has been and will be on hiatus.

888 Seventh Avenue

The very last POP we visited was located at 888 7th Avenue. Although the design was relatively simple, we agreed that the space left a thoughtful impression on us. Walking up to the elevated platform, we could not help but notice that there was not a single person occupying any of the forty or so available seats. Indeed, the image that left the greatest mark on our minds was the remarkably inefficacious use of space. However, we also realize that weather may have played a part in the use of this space on that particular day. Aside from the fact that it may have been a little too chilly to be having lunch or chatting with a friend outside, we concluded that there must be other factors that contribute to this space being looked over by a relatively large portion of the public.

Let’s begin with design. As mentioned before, the plaza is elevated relative to the sidewalk and is reached by walking up a short flight of stairs. This gives the impression that the area is separated and indeed allotted for some distinct use. However, this is also where part of the problem may be found: the public is not outright made aware that this clearly delineated spot is specifically reserved for them. The only two distinguishable plaques there make it undeniably clear that the space is privately owned, as the biggest discernible lettering on each one reads, “THIS IS A PRIVATELY OWNED SPACE” and “PRIVATE PROPERTY… THE PLAZA IS CLOSED FROM 1AM TO 6AM.” One has to examine the smaller print to find the words “general public.” Admittedly though, the space has some good potential and is designed to accommodate a substantial visitor population, given that somebody is willing to break the ice (or perhaps the incoming spring will do that for us).

Conclusion

As we visited these interesting and often vastly distinct POPS(s), we learned quite a few things about how design, labeling, and constructed atmosphere can have a significant impact on the perspective of the visitor. These aspects have an important effect on the way in which the occupant feels he or she should relate to the place. For example, the first impression we had of Le Parker Meridien Hotel‘s privately owned public spacewas a complicated one; we could not seem to reconcile the exclusivist tone of the space with the term “public,” to the effect that we were quite close to walking out thinking that we had entered the wrong building. There are many reasons that a private institution such as Le Parker Meridien would choose to design and arrange a place in that manner—whether it is to maintain an air of prestige for the four-star hotel, filter out non-customers, or simply reduce the flow of occupants, we can only really guess. What is known, according to professor Jerold Kayden, is that at least 50 percent of all buildings with privately owned public spaces violate the terms of their contracts. That is, they maintain the space in a way that is technically illegal.

At the very same time, we cannot ignore the fact that these spaces often serve very useful purposes for the public. And in fact, many of these places may not have existed at all if it were not for the corporate funding. Many of us will admit that we appreciate and make use of available public space indiscriminately, whether owned by a corporation or the municipal government. In reality, most of us do not think too much about who owns the space; we see an accessible area and we enjoy it, without thinking too deeply about the political implications of design, for instance. It won’t do us any harm, however, to consider the ramifications of granting ever-greater ownership and control of public space to profit-motivated private institutions, especially when the overarching trend has been towards greater commercialization and surveillance of space and an almost imperceptible diminishment of democratic freedom. Though as of this moment, it seems that there aren’t enough gloomy skyscrapers to block our view of the sun—and so most of the public continues its happy, carefree stroll along the gray-green, commodified park.

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